Two years ago I met Mario Portasiewicz and his brother Chris while changing planes in London. I noticed he was wearing a basketball t-shirt and I inquired as to the country; “The University of Warsaw, I play on the basketball team.” My passion for basketball is as strong as my love of wine and travel. He and his brother were working construction on a student exchange program and we kept in touch. The next summer he, his brother and several other Polish students re-did my kitchen and floors. They did a beautiful job at a considerable savings to me. Knowing I was going to be in Germany researching wine stories I decided to add Poland to my itinerary. The Polish National Tourist Office secured tickets on the national airlines Lot and voila, I was off on my five day visit. Mario and his family insisted I stay at their house and not in a hotel. What to expect? Would his parents, who did not speak English, Chris, a recent Warsaw University graduate, the younger sister, also at the university, and his younger brother, a high school student, be put out? Everyone else spoke English rather well and each sibling had their own room in their parents comfortable house, 30 minutes from downtown Warsaw.
Mario was waiting for me outside customs at the expanding and renovated Chopin Airport (Chopin was born and spent his childhood in Warsaw and Marie Curie was born here too) and I was able to see Poland, a country of 38 million people, through his eyes. Did you know Poland never officially surrendered to Germany? They did announce capitulation in 1939 but the officials never cooperated with Germany and during the war the “Armia Krajowa” or underground army continued fighting while their leaders moved to England. More than 200,000 Poles (including Jews) were slaughtered by Hitler during the 63 day Warsaw Uprising August through October 1944 as Poles fought an overwhelming German army and might have won had the Russians joined their side, as promised. Instead, the Red Army sat 400 yards across the Vistula River, which divides the city, and allowed the German army to put down the uprising. Once the Russians were assured there was no longer a Polish army they attacked the German troops. The retreating Germans destroyed over 85% of Warsaw.
I had read much about the Warsaw Ghetto and the 380,000 Jews killed in the Ghetto or transported to death camps. Before the German invasion almost 400,000 Jews lived in Warsaw (29% of Warsaw’s total) and 3.5 million in Poland (10% of the population). If I have one problem with Warsaw and its surrounding areas it is the condition of the roads. You notice I did not say highways. To drive anywhere outside Warsaw you have to cross through the center of the city. There are no bypasses. With the gray dark colors of the many Soviet buildings, the potholes and the lack of highways, the slightest problem causes massive traffic jams. When we started touring the city Mario parked his car and we walked, took the underground (just one line) and trolley cars. It seemed most of the 1.7 million residents had the same idea.
The accommodating folks at the Warsaw Tourist Office supplied me with a 3 day Warsaw Tourist Card which got me free or discounted admission to the museums and discounts at many restaurants. I took advantage of the restaurant discounts twice during my stay. The majority of historical buildings and sights are located on or near the Royal Route. I began my 2 ½ mile walking tour at the Old Town Market Square, circa 13th Century (its sibling is the late 14th Century New Town Square a few blocks away ) and a visit to the Historical Museum of Warsaw. The 11 town houses have been reconstructed and now house “The Seven Ages of Warsaw” exhibits. Try to see the film, shot by the Nazis, of their razing of the city. Around the square you see remnants of the Old Town Wall that formerly surrounded the city .
The Royal Route takes you to Castle Square with its King Zygmunt III Column, a memorial to the Polish King who relocated the capital from Krakow to Warsaw and built the 17th Century Royal Castle, his home, that now houses the Royal Castle Museum. Continuing our walk the 1820’s National Theater houses opera and ballet, lies a few blocks off the Royal Route, and almost opposite the 17th Century Presidential Palace, the home of the President of Poland. We stopped at Warsaw University so I could see where Mario, his lady-friend and sister go to school. The National Philharmonic Hall was rebuilt in the 1950’s and is the home of the Warsaw Philharmonic and the International Chopin Competition held every five years (book for October 2005). It is a few blocks off the Royal Route and is overshadowed by the 3,288 room Palace of Culture & Science built in typical Soviet dark colors. We went to the 30th floor observatory for a panoramic view of the city. Stalin built this as a “gift” in 1955 and bulldozed over 50 acres in the heart of town for his building.
There has been talk about knocking it down and building a park in its place but as of now it houses exhibits, cultural and performance events. Back to my route past the National Museum of Art, the Stock Exchange and finally ending at the 18th Century Lazienki Park with its walks, ducks, swans, peacocks, amphitheater used for outdoor productions and Chopin concerts held in the summer. I did not have time to visit the Palace on the Water, the former summer residence of the last Polish king.
The only good thing I will say about the Soviet half century “occupation” of Poland was that they allowed Poles their 1950’s work in restoring most of the building destroyed by the Germans and followed the same design. If one did not read about the destruction you might assume these were original structures. For you history buffs in 1989 communism began to lose its gripe in Poland through civil disobedience and strikes and in 1990 Lech Walesa was elected President.
Another day was devoted to seeing the sights and museums dealing with the Warsaw Rising & the Warsaw Ghetto. Most of these can be found just west of the Old Town Wall with the Statue of the Little Insurgent, a bronze of a child who took part in the Rising, my first stop. In front of the Palace of Justice part of the new “modern” Warsaw are the huge bronze figures, carrying machine guns and grenades, called the Memorial to the Heroes of the Warsaw Rising. There is also a brand new Warsaw Rising Museum dedicated to telling the story of the brave Poles who were determined to retake Warsaw from the Germans.
The entire area is awash with commemorative stone and bronze. A few streets further west were the bronze bas-relief of the Ghetto fighters called, Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which was just southeast of Umschlagplatz where trains took most of Warsaw’s Jews to the death camps. After much searching and help from a nice lady we found The Jewish Historical Institute inside the central Library of Judaistica, which survived the war although within the boundaries of the Ghetto. We watched a 37 minute film presenting the history of the Jewish Quarter from its very beginnings to its utter destruction. There is also a register of names of Poles who rescued and assisted Jews, plus an exhibit of Jewish art. We followed the Memorial Route to the Struggle and Martyrdom of the Jews stopping at each black granite block to read the inscription.
We ran into a large group of high school students from Israel who we were to see in two days at Auschwitz. Heading back to our car we stopped at the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East which commemorates the almost two million Poles deported by the Soviets to the gulag, many never to return.
Many who fled to the west during the reign of Communism have returned to fuel the social and economic fires. There are new restaurants, nightclubs, luxury hotels opening almost daily. We visited the Le Royal Meridian Bristol Hotel built in 1899 and renovated in 1993 and two new boutique properties-Le Regina & Rialto. Poland is now a member of the European Union which will make trade between the members a lot easier. My last night in Warsaw I took my host family out to dinner at a typical Polish restaurant U Szwejka and a full dinner for six people cost me less than $75.
Mario, his lady Alexandra and Brother Chris drove me four hours to Krakow (750,000) where we toured the “Old Town” a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is anchored by Main Market Square, one of the largest plazas in Europe. Center to the square is the 13th Century Cloth Hall, now a trading center for crafts and souvenirs. On the east side of the square is St. Mary’s Gothic Church with a hejnal (bugle-call) played every hour. Overlooking the city on Wawel Hill is the 14th century Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Castle, which received its renaissance look in the 16th century and was the seat of Poland’s king from the 14th to 16th centuries.
The Royal Castle houses one of the world’s great collections of decorative tapestries and art of the Orient. We walked to the Kazimerz Jewish Quarter, (almost 70,000 Jews lived in Krakow before WWII) one of the oldest in Europe and the site of the summer Festival of Jewish Heritage. This city is a walker’s paradise with everything close to the city center (and the roads are better). The Alte Schule Synagogue, Europe’s oldest (one of seven) has been restored as a museum while the Jewish Cemetery next door has been lovingly refurbished. The neighborhood is filled with restaurants so I took the group to the Arka Noego (Noah’s Ark) restaurant to sample a Shabbat dinner. Across the river is the former Jewish Ghetto that was used for filming Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The Krakow professional basketball team was playing the Warsaw team and Mario managed to secure 4 tickets. What fun for me to see and talk to several American players I had seen play in college and the NBA.
Driving one hour south-west we entered the restored Death Camp of Auschwitz, established in 1940 originally only for Polish political prisoners. Auschwitz II was built in 1941 & Auschwitz III in 1942. Between 1942 & 1945 almost 1 ½ million people lived and died here of which 90% were Jewish; the second largest group were Poles. Number 1 & 2 are open as a museum with the four crematoria, gas chambers and cremation pits a living reminder of mans inhumanity to man. It was both sad and enlightening to me as scores of school age students, from Israel, Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, the US and of course Poland were collecting data for their school assignments. The German’s kept such meticulous records with every prisoner photographed and assigned a number that you are able to see shoes, eyeglasses, suitcases, the deplorable sleeping and eating conditions and many documents. As a non-practicing Jew who did not lose anyone during this period I could only imagine what it must be like for people to visit and see their grandparents or aunts and uncles photos. I needed fresh air after each visit to a barracks to compose myself. IT MUST BE SEEN BY EVERYONE.
My trip to Poland allowed me to dispel many myths about the country and its people. The German wine growers I visited before my Poland trip all hired Polish workers to tend the vineyards because they “worked hard and did a great job.” I found a warm friendly people looking to better themselves. It was a great experience for me and I hope to return soon.